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A preface of sorts: examining alcohol consumption in Burma and beyond

This is the first installment on Alcohol and the Theravada Buddhist World.

My curiosity into this topic was first piqued when I saw an infographic on Facebook that ranked alcohol consumption among ASEAN countries: Burma was second to last, only rivaled by Indonesia, a Muslim country. My general impression was that Burma’s relative isolation, alongside Theravada Buddhism — more orthodox than its Tibetan and Mahayana counterparts (Tibetan Buddhism and Japanese Buddhism have more lenient perspectives on alcohol consumption)–was the underlying driving force, the explanation for this observation.

It wasn’t without context though. This paralleled my own experience, growing up in a Burmese Theravada Buddhist family. Simply put, I was raised in a dry household. Alcohol never featured as a part of family gatherings or meals; so much so that even family weddings served apple cider, not wine or champagne. Rowdy uncles singing karaoke while inebriated didn’t feature as part of my childhood, as it did for many of my Asian American friends. Drinking was never actively discouraged, but it was always understood to be taboo, not even questioned let alone discussed.

It wasn’t until college that I first encountered alcohol, let alone try it. By my own admission, I have had a drink here or there, but very infrequently, and only in social settings. It’s practically unavoidable as a twenty-something-year-old living in the 21st century, lest I be an outcast. But I’ve always been aware that drinking is at odds with my own faith, making it difficult to reconcile the two. Especially when Buddhism has informed other choices and actions I’ve made in my life, and is a religion I hold in high esteem.

So I decided to explore whether that was the case, whether my experience, raised in a conventional Burmese Buddhist family, was mirrored in other majority Theravada Buddhist countries: Cambodia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Laos. Turns out that wasn’t the case. Luckily, there was a wealth of data available on the World Health Organization’s Global Information System on Alcohol and Health (GISAH) [link].

But as Burma opens its doors to the outside world, there seems to be a loosening of these social mores. For instance, on social media, I’ve noticed a surge of Burmese youths (often around my age or younger), both friends and relatives alike, casually drinking alcohol in social settings. I know it’s all conjectural, but it’s become big enough of an issue that’s been noticed, with headlines on Myanmar Times asking: “Are young men drinking too much beer?” [link] and the Minister for Health, Dr. Pe Thet Khin, speaking before Parliament (just days ago, in fact) on legislation to restrict alcohol consumption [link].

In the following days, I’ll be publishing a series of posts exploring this further. So I suppose this is just an introduction, the first in an installment on this subject.

5 thoughts on “A preface of sorts: examining alcohol consumption in Burma and beyond

  1. Wagaung says:

    Though we belong to different generations your experience closely mirrored mine except I did have a notorious lesbian for an older cousin who drank so I had my first taste of Mandalay beer (Pale Ale) quite young. But I only had some tinlèbyu from Hlegu again at Phaunggyi in my mid twenties.

    Our lack of a national tipple except palm wine (hta-yé which I do have once in a blue moon, and dani-yé</i) is now being so amply addressed by every imaginable form of home made and imported liquor that health concerns have been expressed by the doctors.

    The increase in consumption of alcohol appears to be part and parcel of this thing called progress linked with a perverse notion of modernity and development. Besides it comes not just from the usual suspects namely Western cultures but from the Chinese, Japanese and nowadays Korean custom of drinking along with bleached hair especially from the small screen in our living rooms. Certainly the consumer society especially conspicuous consumption as seen on Facebook inevitably encourages it so that you begin to see Burmese women, young and not so young, with a glass of wine in their hand almost like a status symbol or a fashion statement, not to mention another perverse notion of Western feminism.

    Among the labouring classes the stress of the daily grind, the hardship of eking out a living from one day to the next, contributes to it. As our elders always say it's perhaps to a large part the company you keep. It's true in my experience.

    Glad to say I have not touched a drop having lived in the West for the last three decades and more, longer than in the land I was born and grew up in. It's sad to witness bad things always reach there faster than good things if at all. They say capitalism works by seduction, and human nature being what it is, we can only hope ancient wisdom, not a mere taboo, will prevail in the end.

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